September 30, 2022
Government agencies – from health and human services to law enforcement—need to adopt innovative approaches to stem the rising tide of addiction and drug overdoses, namely fentanyl overdoses.
In November 2021, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics released data showing that for the first time in United States history, drug overdose deaths topped 100,000 in a 12-month period—coming in at 107,600 lives lost and up nearly 30% from the previous year. In particular, law enforcement entities have reported a steep rise in fentanyl overdoses, with the synthetic opioid driving the majority of overdose deaths.
This tragic epidemic has impacted countless families and communities across the country, creating a heavy burden for members of law enforcement, who bear the brunt of the public pressure to stop the problem and save the lives being lost to overdoses.
Some departments have adopted new practices to help—such as that of officer discretion. After taking away the narcotic from an individual, officers then have the choice to connect victims to recovery services or other forms of assistance without the compulsion to arrest. This is policing at its core, as true policing isn’t just about law enforcement; it’s about developing long-term solutions to community problems.
This is in line with a larger strategy, echoing an Executive Order issued by the White House which called for increased funding to combat the overdose epidemic. To that end, the administration’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget specifically calls for increased funding for “evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, treatment, recovery, interdiction, and supply reduction approaches to save lives.” According to the Order, a core component of the agenda is also to specifically reduce the flow of illicit drugs, such as fentanyl.
Many police departments are developing their own programs and turning more and more to innovative solutions like open-source intelligence technology (OSINT) to help officers reduce the risk of perpetual fentanyl overdoses and prioritize long-term community health over sheer number of arrests.
OSINT identifies the connections and patterns between hotspots, locations and persons of interest. By utilizing open-source intelligence combined with forensics, officers can supplement their investigations and access more data than has ever before been available. Information from identified fentanyl overdose victims can point to where the drug is originating. Then, law enforcement can remove the dealer, and from the dealer’s network, identify others struggling with fentanyl addiction and in need of assistance.
The majority of fentanyl-related deaths results from illicitly-made fentanyl that is being mixed with or sold as heroin, or as counterfeit pills. By identifying where recreational fentanyl-users go and how they’re getting the substance, technology-based solutions are enabling police departments to piece together timelines, geospatial information, and more—complementing the investigation or overall program being instituted to help those in need.
Some of the most critical information to investigations comes from OSINT. OSINT-driven tools can scour all available public sources of information and analyze the findings, making them a game-changer to police departments. And when powered by artificial intelligence (AI), these tools can run in the background— aggregating data to clearly highlight the various webs of connection and freeing up officers to focus on the human elements of law enforcement.
Implementing these technologies is also a smart move from a budgeting standpoint, saving departments from having to pay salaries for additional officers and overtime. Additionally, police departments—already chronically understaffed—are able to get ahead of other issues by not having to take officers away to respond to overdoses.
To make a lasting difference, broader, more innovative solutions are required. Using OSINT to inform police departments is a clear path to reducing fentanyl-related overdoses, increasing community resiliency, and putting those resources saved back into policing and supporting the community.